Answer to Map #61

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Answer: This week’s map was a choropleth showing the percentage of the population in each county of the United States that has served in the military.

The data used to make this map came from the American Community Survey (the ongoing survey project that supplements the decennial census). Specifically, we took our figures from estimates from 2015.

On our map, the darkest counties are those where veterans make up more than 20% of the total population. The second darkest shade of green indicates counties where between 17% and 20% of the total population are veterans. And so on, decreasing by 3% with each shade.

There are three counties where more than 20% of the population has served in the military: Liberty County, Georgia (22.62%); Geary County, Kansas (21.38%); and Onslow County, North Carolina (20.06%). If you look up these counties, you will quickly see why they are so closely linked with military service. Liberty County is home to Fort Stewart. Geary County is home to Fort Riley. And Onslow County is home to Camp Lejeune. Counties with major military bases are home to more veterans. This trend makes sense: many veterans want to keep living in military communities, and some find jobs on military bases.

If you try to look past the specific counties that are visible on this map and pay attention instead to general trends, you will notice that there are more veterans in less densely populated areas than in major cities. You will also notice that the Mountain West and the Southeast appear particularly pronounced on this map.

One state in the Mountain West, however, does not match its neighbors. Utah is very light. Relatively few Utah residents enlist in the military, and relatively few veterans move to Utah after completing their service. One important reason seems to be the popularity of missions among young Mormon men. Mormon men tend to undertake two-year missions around age 19, which is exactly the same age when people in other states are most likely to enter the military.

This week’s map produced far, far more incorrect submissions than we have ever had before. Most people seem to have realized that the darkest counties on this map were home to military bases, but failed to make the connection to veterans. Instead, many people guessed that the map depicted the residences of people currently in the military or rates of enlistment in the military. The problem with this first answer is that every county in the entire country is green, and some very remote counties are even quite dark green. Since the U.S. does not have a military presence in every single county, one cannot live just anywhere while serving in the military.

Those submitters who guessed rates of enlistment have gone astray in a slightly more subtle way. It is true that military communities in the vicinity of bases have higher rates of enlistment, since many children of soldiers follow their parents into the service. We only have access to enlistment rate data at the state level, but the states with the highest enlistment rates are Florida, Georgia, and Maine. Overall, the South is the region with the highest enlistment rates. Now contrast these statistics with our map of where veterans live. Alaska, Maine, and Montana are the three states with the highest proportion of veterans. Perhaps there’s something about military service that makes a person want to move a cold climate?

One trend that is common both to the distribution of veterans and to military enlistment rates is that rural areas are better represented than urban areas. People in rural areas are more likely to join the military, and people who have served in the military are more like to move to rural areas following their discharge.

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